|This is an occasional column, from the notebook of a non-technical user.
Some Minor Rants of a Musical Nature
1. About five years ago, a man in an expensive suit, carrying a
legal style briefcase, walked into several business establishments on
Ventura Boulevard, to speak with the proprietor of each.
Each business had one thing in common: each of them played music -- typically programming from one of the local radio stations -- over their music system.
The man in the suit introduced himself as an attorney representing either
ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) or
BMI. (I'm afraid my memory is hazy in regard to exactly which of these
it was.) These are the organizations that represent recording artists
and their performance or intellectual property rights.
Perhaps you've already guessed what came next. With a smoothly
intimidating manner, this purported music industry rep informed the business owners that they could face serious penalties if they kept the music
playing. The possible choices: discontinue the free soundtrack for their
shoppers and diners, or begin to pay a regular fee as general compensation for all the various royalties involved. One store owner I knew was
very unhappy about this, and had his doubts, but decided he didn't want
any trouble, so he was prepared to acquiesce to the payments in order to
make this issue go away. A few doors down, a restaurateur I know rolled
over even more easily. He was not born in the U.S., English is not his
original language, and in his world view, any "legal authorities" are not
to be trifled with. Plus, he did not want to give up on the classical
music that he provided in the background for his patrons' enjoyment.
(Mind you, in the latter case we happen to be talking about music written
by people who have been dead for two or three hundred years. This makes
it kind of hard to deliver the royalties.)
When I mentioned this to Mike, a friend of mine who once co-owned a
store in another part of town, he became indignant, saying "If a guy like
that came into my shop with that line, I would have pistol-whipped him
and tossed his *** out onto the sidewalk." But then, Mike always had a
flair for the overly dramatic.
Now I'm certainly no lawyer, but this does raise a number of interesting questions, even to the layman. (Various readers who do have a
professional grasp of this subject will doubtless clue me in.) Does
publicly receiving music that is being broadcast over public airwaves
-- with the radio station presumably already paying any applicable
royalties -- constitute an illegal rebroadcast? And does that then also
make one liable for additional payments of artists royalties? If
either of these propositions are true, wouldn't that make illegal the
countless TV sets that have always been playing something in countless
bars and restaurants, not to mention all those sets in Circuit City or
The Good Guys?
I don't want you jumping to the conclusion that this is going to be
a blanket defense of peer-to-peer file trading, or an attack on certain
organizations or intellectual property rights (which I do happen to
believe in). I will only note that some legitimate issues have a
tendency to swing the pendulum way too far, off into some ridiculous
Back to our strong-arming solicitor. Even at the time, the possibility occurred to me that this guy could well be a "music industry
attorney" in much the same way that I'm very likely to be Arnold's
understudy for TERMINATOR 4. This could easily have been a vintage scam
that plays out repeatedly in cities all over the country. Think about
it. There must be plenty of business owners like those I heard from,
more inclined to cave than to dig into the legal basis for this or to
fight it. Then again, maybe it was the real deal. If it was a scam,
like the best of them it has the ring of plausibility.
2. Have you ever been bedeviled by some song lyrics that you never
quite could pin down?
Who hasn't, from time to time? You might think
that in this abundant information age, definitive answers would be just a
few mouse clicks away. Until fairly recently you'd be wrong. Over a
period of several years, I had searched out and observed numerous web-
sites in various stages of construction, that had the stated purpose of
providing easy lookup from a database of song lyrics. Older songs, newer
songs, songs from bands or solo artists that mean something to You,
even if just as a matter of curiosity. If I were to dig through a bunch
of old Bookmark files, I could probably unearth quite a few of these dead
links. (Two defunct URLs that I just quickly looked up from those files
were LYRICSH.COM and LYRICSEARCH.COM.)
Why did these sites all perish, often before they really opened?
Undoubtedly, many must have disappeared for mundane, non-sinister reasons: no sustaining business model; the hobbyist behind the site lost the
time or the interest to keep it going. But a whole bunch of these sites
appear to have been squashed like a bug. By whom, you ask? I'm not
sure, and it hasn't been easy to find out, so pick one: the R.I.A.A.
(Recording Industry Association of America), or maybe one of the previously noted trade groups?
What could they have been so afraid of? All the lost sheet music
sales to the vast majority of us non-musicians? The prospect of taking
a major bath on the Karaoke market? No "vig" on all those bar bets?
Help me out here.
Of course, the most notorious lyrics mystery of all time probably
involves the true words to that 50's tune "Louie, Louie", which became a
hit for The Kingsmen in the early '60s. Depending on which dubious version of the story you accept, this was a case of inebriation, or band
members not being able to remember the words so they faked it, or
deliberately slurring the words because some of the real lyrics were
far too naughty for airplay. (The true story is probably much less interesting. See http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_316, if you're curious.)
Usually it is just a matter of poor enunciation by a vocalist, or a
muddy studio mix. By way of a more recent example, I had long been puzzling over a couple lines of The Sopranos theme song, by Alabama3. As
luck would have it, all things Soprano are too much in the public eye for
this to be a secret. There are a number of sites with this info, such as
that cleared this up for me. Thanks to them, I saw that I was wrong
about Line 6: It's not "You've got gunshine" (what I thought I heard,
which would have been more consistent with Line 22), it's actually
"You've got to burn to shine," and O.K., there's not that much of a
discrepancy for Line 20 between my incorrectly heard "Since the blues
walked in our town" and the actual "Since the blues walked into town."
I wasn't too far off on that theme song, but some of the misunderstandings are hilarious. There was even a semi-official term coined for
them: Mondegreens. A good place to start is
http://www.kissthisguy.com -- (The Archive of Misheard Lyrics) or
For general use, one of the best lyrics site I've stumbled across so far is now at http://www.hitlistlyrics.com/, after briefly disappearing with no forwarding address. Billing itself as the "Lyrics Community" this site has impressive breadth and depth. For example, they seem to have 427 songs either by or having some connection to Neil Young. The original URL (http://www.lyrics.ss.ru/) suggested that this is a Russian site, but I have my doubts. For one thing, their use of English is mistake free, with no trace of awkwardness. If the site is in fact Russian, we can have some expectation that it will remain outside the long reach of the recording industry, what with the Russians being such noted champions of IP.
Meanwhile, a number of other lyrics database sites have kept popping up, some with even more vast holdings. If the aforementioned site is not available or working properly, try http://www.songme.com/ or http://www.leoslyrics.com. Some of these databases allow you to perform a search by artist, by album, or by song title. What to do if you can't even identify the song that you happen to be looking for? One truly neat feature of LeosLyrics is the ability to search the database by the merest song fragment that you do recall. This could be by word or group of words, though that tends to produce far too many hits. Their search-by-phrase is the much better bet, and the more distinctive the line you recall, the greater your chance of success will be. All that's possibly missing here, feature-wise, is an artist/lyric cross-reference. By this method, I have already identified one mystery song that had bothered me for years, and I hope to identify many more. As in the original spirit of the Internet, "Information Wants to be Free." (Give or take a few banner ads.)
Identifiying the artist or song of interest provides the information needed in order to purchase their work. While such info might conceivably also benefit file-traders, they got along quite well for years without it. A couple of these sites will gladly facilitate your ordering the *commercially released* CD of the artist you've just identified. So, tell me again -- How is this a bad thing?
2.5. A while back, there was a major legal issue in the works that
potentially could have unraveled the very fabric of the Internet.
It concerned the legal status of links on web pages -- the way you are able
to make sharp right turns in cyberspace that can take you ten thousand
miles in a mouse click. The theory was that a link could easily enable
the violation of copyrights and patents, or provide ready access to
things that are clearly illegal. Have such a link on your web page, and
it's not information. Even though the illegal activity is far away, conducted by people you have nothing to do with, it makes you an accessory
to the crime. (This is sort of like getting arrested for speaking the
lyrics to a rap song that mentions a drive-by shooting. It's guilt by
association.) If memory serves, cases related to this issue concerned
the DVDCSS utility that defeated region encoding for DVD drives, which
quickly circulated everywhere via the Internet, and some cracking-related
items that were linked in the pages of the online hacker's publication
2600.Com a couple years ago, causing them to be shut down for awhile and
threatened with prosecution.
Consider for a moment a linkless Internet. To give you some idea, each URL included here has been rendered as plain text only. Not so great, huh?
I don't know if the links issue reached any ultimate legal disposition, but the MP3 file-swapping wars still rage, you can find just about
anything online, and the Internet still functions. The DVDCSS prosecution ran off the rails recently. If anything drastic had been decided
regarding The Big Picture, we should have heard of it by now. Once out,
technological genies are almost impossible to force back into their
2.75. Putting the muscle on shopkeepers who happen to have a radio
on, and suppressing the lookup of lyrics can be viewed as part of a
It may be of a piece with the recent prosecution of a 13
year old girl for downloading MP3s, to make a well-publicized example and
put the fear of PEERing into others. Or with the phone company sending
out a $56,000 phone bill because someone in the household got scammed
into a 900-call that allowed thieves to capture their account number. Or
a certain software giant, whose business tactics would bring a smile to
Tony Soprano, stomping another teen's registration of the domain for his
eponymous Mike Rowe Soft website. (I can see why Redmond might have some
qualms about the .Com, but spot the kid a .Net or a .Org. Something.
It's not like he made up or changed his own name. Yes, MS, some really
bad spellers or your customers in Djibouti will be easily confused.) If
you are a big and powerful entity, there is a tendency to "reach out and
crush someone" . . . just because you can.
3. The age of music narrowcasting has arrived.
This is much like
what happened some years ago with the proliferation of Cable TV channels
that made possible a full-time golf channel, and so forth. Recently, I
was in an Italian bistro that was playing The Sinatra Station from
Sirius, one of the two satellite radio providers. It seemed to be predominantly Sinatra (certainly, his body of work must be more than sufficient to keep a full-time station going), with just enough songs from other, compatible artists to mix things up and avoid any sense of
monotony. This is much more focussed and format-specific than the
playlist you will hear from any conventional over-the-air station. There
were no commercials, so far as I noticed. As Sirius is a service available only by subscription, I'm wondering if this restaurant will be
receiving a surprise visit from the man in the suit with the legal briefcase?
Curiously enough, we have had music narrowcasting available for some
time now, over the Internet, for free. I first became aware of Internet
Radio a couple years ago, in the form of Shoutcast (an association of a
large group of Internet stations, representing most every imaginable
genre and sub-genre of music). In large measure, this introduction was
due to the excellent Z! player for OS/2, which offers some nice features
that are tied in to Shoutcast. There are many stations offering electronic music of various kinds (Trance; Techno), and many featuring artists you never heard of, whose work may not be available at the record
store. In broad measure, this is a medium for gaining exposure, without
the need to fit the mold of whatever a record label happens to be looking
for at any given moment.
The future of free, streaming Internet Radio is unclear at best,
thanks to the usual suspects, who would very much like to eradicate it,
and the absence (so far) of an adequate revenue stream to support it.
In a future column, we will take a closer look at Z!, and at Shoutcast --
assuming the latter is still around.
Want to read about other discoveries by The Fox?
The author welcomes your suggestions for future discoveries. Email the cunning fellow at
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